5G, Wi-Fi 6, and nano-satellites: Cisco pushes total coverage

5G is not the be all and end all, Cisco has said, with Wi-Fi 6 needed to enable indoor coverage and nano-satellites necessary for ensuring the entire world is connected.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Senior Reporter on

With 90 percent of the world's landmass and 3.7 billion people still without access to connectivity, Cisco Australia and New Zealand CTO Kevin Bloch has argued that while 5G is the hottest buzzword, nano-satellites are what is really needed right now.

"Nobody here is going to benefit from 5G yet, and it's going to take a long time, because the speed on 4G is pretty good right now already," Bloch told ZDNet at Cisco Live 2019 in Melbourne.

"There might be a very small percentage of consumers who may want to ... buy the latest and greatest gadget, [but] 5G handsets will cost a lot more for only an incremental speed increase."

On the other hand, Cisco is currently helping a lot of farmers in Australia who have no access to connectivity.

"Yeah, the NBN is going to swing around, but there's no 3G, 4G," he said. Telstra only covers 30 percent of the Australian landmass, he explained, primarily in metro areas and on highways.

The Internet of Things (IoT) applications really needed by farmers -- for instance, measuring water and air temperature and wind to avoid heat stress -- don't really need bandwidth; they only need connectivity.

So while he said 5G has an important role to play in providing faster and higher-capacity connectivity for consumers and especially enterprise applications, satellite is also needed for wider coverage. The most economical way to reach places like farms, oil rigs, and even the Antarctic is therefore via the 13,000 low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites that are expected to be launched over the next two years.

"What we're going to see are meshed nano-satellite networks hovering above the earth," Bloch said.

"We can do a lot if we get that connectivity, and these LEOs -- a. because of relaunch; and b. because of the form factor -- when you build something for 600 kilometres above the surface versus 35,000 kilometres, you can get the cost down to literally orders of magnitude.

"Like a tenth or a hundredth of the cost of the satellite."

Also read: Nanosatellite hopefuls eyeing IoT opportunities

Adding to this, Cisco's global COO Irving Tantold ZDNet that the combination of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will also deliver "unprecedented possibilities" by complementing each other in two ways: Indoor coverage and economics.

"One of the challenges of 3G and 4G [was] indoor penetration," he explained. "Wi-Fi 6 will give you the same ultra low-latency, high-bandwidth throughput that 5G will give you in a macro environment, but bring that into an indoor environment.

"5G technology will still use regulated spectrum, which is expensive, so providers have had to spend millions of dollars just like they did with 3G, just like they did with 4G, to be able to acquire 5G spectrum, so every gigabit of bandwidth that you're using is going to be much more costly, whereas Wi-Fi obviously uses unregulated spectrum.

"So the combination of the two will actually give you the optimal economics, throughput, low-latency capability to give you that pervasive coverage."

During the Cisco Live 2019 keynote on Wednesday, Tan argued that Asia is "very much leading the way" on both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G.

"The Koreans and the Japanese will be at the forefront of [5G] implementation", he said, adding that the new Samsung Galaxy s10 smartphones will be first to use Wi-Fi 6.

Beyond simply improving speeds and capacity for mobile users, Tan said artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will improve under both communications technologies, too.

"It moves connectivity and digital beyond humans and devices into the realm of machine to machine. It will bring the dream of driverless vehicles to life," Tan said.

"It has the possibility to transform healthcare," he added, pointing to surgery robotics and better surgeon training with VR and haptic feedback instead of cadavers.

Bloch agreed that the "real" 5G business cases will be autonomous vehicles where low latency is needed, and in critical infrastructure, where a lot of density is required.

Disclosure: Corinne Reichert travelled to Cisco Live in Melbourne as a guest of Cisco

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